Theater Review: ‘Coriolanus’

Politics, public image, and a lesson in arrogance
November 14, 2016 2:14 pm Last Updated: November 17, 2016 2:27 pm

NEW YORK—When it comes to politics, public image is everything—a point brought powerfully home by Red Bull Theater’s timely and riveting production of William Shakespeare’s seldom-performed “Coriolanus.”

In ancient Rome, Caius Martius (Dion Johnstone) is a soldier extraordinaire. He is responsible for many victories and assumes an almost legendary status in the eyes of his fellow soldiers and the citizens of Rome. 

‘Coriolanus’ is a warning against the dangers of pride.

After his most recent triumph, he is given the name of Coriolanus and offered the chance to stand for the position of counsel. It’s a post he covets and firmly feels he deserves, as does his mother Volumnia (Lisa Harrow), who roundly delights in her son’s exploits.

Yet despite the enthusiastic backing of various generals and senators, Coriolanus’s appointment must first be approved by the Roman people. It’s basically a mere formality, but to Coriolanus, who comes from the city’s upper class, the thought of having to walk among the common folk to ask for their votes infuriates him.

Refusing to act in the manner expected, Coriolanus quickly manages to alienate all those who had just sung his praises—though not until they have first pledged their votes to him.

The tribunes Sicinius Velutus (Stephen Spinella) and Junius Brutus (Merritt Janson), seeking to be seen as champions of the people, urge the masses to reject Coriolanus’s pending appointment. The already uneasy citizenry, chafing over recent economic turmoil and enraged by Coriolanus’s attitude, prove all too happy to do just that. Velutus and Brutus then use this wave of populist unrest to have Coriolanus declared a traitor and driven into exile.

Tribunes (L–R) Junius Brutus (Merritt Janson) and Sicinius Velutus (Stephen Spinella) manipulate public opinion of Coriolanus, in an production that highlights similarities between Shakespeare's play and our current election season. (Carol Rosegg)
Tribunes (L–R) Junius Brutus (Merritt Janson) and Sicinius Velutus (Stephen Spinella) manipulate public opinion of Coriolanus, in an production that highlights similarities between Shakespeare’s play and our current election season. (Carol Rosegg)

Seeking vengeance against those who have betrayed him, Coriolanus makes his way to the city of Antium and the home of Tullus Aufidius (Matthew Amendt), the general of the Volscians and enemy of the Rome Empire. Coriolanus offers to join Aufidius’s forces and lead an attack against Rome. It is an offer Aufidius quickly accepts.

At heart, “Coriolanus” is a warning against the dangers of pride. This clearly applies to the title character, not only in his attitude towards the Roman people, but also in his alliance with Aufidius, who soon chafes at being relegated to secondary status when Coriolanus begins to usurp him in the eyes of his men. Coriolanus is so single minded that he fails to see this new danger.

The production also examines just how fickle people can be. They are quite ready to support a person or idea one moment and completely deny them the next. When news of Coriolanus and Aufidius’s plans become public, several citizens proclaim that they never wanted Coriolanus banished in the first place and that they did it only against their will. These people look to those in power to save them from an onslaught they helped put in motion.

Joined closely with this idea is the premise that it is easy to manipulate the masses by telling them what they want to hear. Certainly Velutus and Brutus do so in order to further their own ends.

Menenius Agrippa (Patrick Page), a friend to Coriolanus and career politician. (Carol Rosegg)
Menenius Agrippa (Patrick Page), a friend to Coriolanus and career politician. (Carol Rosegg)

Director Michael Sexton makes the show timely by cutting certain scenes and concentrating on the elements described above. The production is also made more topical thanks to the rather Spartan set by Brett J. Banakis, which includes some election paraphernalia, such as a ballot box.

Most of the characters are memorable in their own ways, but the one that comes off as the most complex is Menenius Agrippa (Patrick Page), a friend to Coriolanus and career politician. He first appears as a stereotypical good ol’ boy, complete with a drink in his hand, but quickly proves himself to be a master tactician. He knows how to strike the proper balance between showy and serious while never compromising his loyalty to Coriolanus or to the people of Rome, even when it is more politically convenient—and safer—to do that.

Johnston is magnetic as Coriolanus, a proud and driven man, but one unable to look beyond his own needs and status. His scenes with Coriolanus’s wife (Rebecca S’Manga Frank) and young son (Olivia Reis) offer a tender counterpoint to ones when he rails against those who seek to condemn him.

Harrow does very well as Coriolanus’s stern mother, an unbending person in her own right who has more than a few choice words for those who would move against her son.

Spinella and Janson do quite well as behind-the-scenes manipulators, gauging the prevailing political winds and trying to ride them to their best advantage, while never operating too far out in the open to be called to account for their actions.

Offering a strong warning about arrogance, power, and mass manipulation, this production clearly shows “Coriolanus” to be as relevant today as when it was written.

‘Coriolanus’
27 Barrow St. (at Seventh Avenue)
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or RedBullTheater.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Nov. 20

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for StageBuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.